Not another Black Life: Towards an anti-racist ESL pedagogy (by Yecid Ortega)

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

“Not another black life!” was chanted several times during the pandemic marches for Black Lives Matter in Toronto in early 2020. In one of those demonstrations, I walked with the crowd for about two hours, some chanting out loud while others were just singing and dancing. Suddenly the march became a mini party across the street from the Toronto police headquarters until we were told to disperse and use different streets to evacuate the premises to avoid police persecution.

I walked back home exhausted. After resting for a while, I got to thinking, “I am a language educator and researcher. I wonder what can be done to address this issue in the English classroom (ESL/EFL/TESOL).” At that moment, I remembered there was a call for the TESL Ontario 48th Annual Virtual Conference with the theme Resilience: Re-envisioning Language Education Together. I thought this would be a great opportunity to engage with teachers and ask whether it was possible to address issues of anti-black racism in an English class. Days after, I sent out the proposal for a presentation and was glad when it was accepted a few weeks after.

During the coming weeks, I bought books, read articles and engaged in discussions around this topic with fellow educators and researchers. I wanted to review the literature but also get a sense of what folks thought about the possibilities and challenges of addressing racism in the classroom. As I continued watching the news and hearing more cases of police brutality, microaggressions and invalidations to my friends and colleagues in the  Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) community, I realized it was especially important to discuss these issues with students who are at the margins, such as recent immigrants.

Typically, new immigrants and refugees take free English classes in order to gain the necessary language skills to integrate into the Canadian socioeconomic and educational system. I spoke to several ESL teachers who commented that racism was not necessarily addressed in these classes, which focus on supplying the language students need to survive. Teachers are supposed to teach to perform tasks such as writing a CV, preparing for an interview, opening a bank account, and ordering goods on the phone.

On the day of my presentation, I tried to bridge the gap between the survival English curriculum and social justice. I presented the possibilities and challenges of addressing racism in the classroom and provided a few lesson plan examples. Then we spent a few minutes on a hands-on activity to create a lesson addressing these issues in the ESL classroom. Attendees expressed their concern about the humongous selection of theory and concepts, but relative lack of practical resources for teachers. In addition, they said that when they try to address racism in the classroom, they often encounter a lack of support, or even backlash, from their colleagues and administrators. Other teachers expressed that they did not feel capable of doing such work either because they had not been trained to teach such heavy topics or because they could cause any emotional effect on their students.

I told the audience that although there are challenges to this work, it is better to do something than nothing. It is always good to prepare lessons, tasks, activities and projects that address these issues based on the teachers’ contexts and abilities, availability of resources, motivation and willingness to do the job. At the end of my presentation, I provided my email for anyone to contact me, so we could continue the conversation and possibly collaborate on research projects addressing anti-Black racism in the English classroom.

After several days, I got an email from TESL Ontario with feedback from the audience and the positive response was overwhelming.

I sent an email to those who had attended to thank them for the fabulous responses and sent out a call to those who wanted to participate with me on collaborative research to keep digging on this topic. One teacher reached out, and since then we have regular meetings to explore how she could include some anti-racist ideas in her curriculum.

Around the same time, I had a meeting with a colleague from school and discussed the same topic, as she was also concerned about how to address racism and social justice in her adult ESL classes. We had an initial meeting and talked for a couple of hours; we envisioned a plan for a duo ethnographic collaborative research that is currently in development. Since then, we have met for about two months now. In each one-hour session, we discuss what she does in the class,  what activities she plans to address anti-Black racism and how we both are learning from the exchange of ideas.

Now, we have about ten videos documenting our experiences, numerous WhatsApp chat messages and an online repository of our ideas and resources. I have already started to synthesize this data, and I can share that three major themes have emerged: addressing trauma, lack of time and resources, and pushback or resistance.

First, trauma is a concern for many ESL teachers. Teaching about social justice, anti-oppression and anti-racism is not an easy task. We face the risk of triggering traumatic events among our students. When talking about racism or discrimination, students bring their own personal stories from their home countries and sometimes experiences from the receiving country as well. When sharing these experiences, there is the risk of reawakening traumatic experiences or sparking animosity among students who may disagree on the topics presented in the class. My colleague and I have determined that one way to address this is to create a safe space for students who want to share their lived experiences with no pressure, and to provide the resources and language they can utilize to talk about it and defend themselves when necessary.

Second, discussing and addressing anti-black racism is a daunting and sometimes exhausting task. Teachers have to adapt the topic to their curricular expectations from the ministry of education. Most of the time, ready-made resources are unavailable or hard to find, and many of the materials that do exist are highly theoretical or too academic for ESL students. It takes teachers a lot of (personal) time to adapt them. For example, my colleague created a lesson about debates in the class with a follow-up essay. She mentioned that just preparing this task took her several hours, as she had to modify authentic materials such as newspaper articles.

Third, ESL teachers trying to work with social justice may encounter pushback from administration or resistance from the students themselves. I have experienced situations in which the administration may not have seen the benefit of addressing social justice issues in ESL, arguing that teaching through this lens is not going to provide students with the necessary skills to be productive in Canadian society. Similarly, some students may be hesitant or resistant to learn something that they consider irrelevant to finding a job or seeking further education.

In spite of these challenges, I am hopeful that the discussions surrounding social justice and anti-black racism in ESL have been now taken off, and that more teachers are interested in bringing these topics into the classroom. I have had various requests from different organizations to train teachers on creating lessons related to issues that the most vulnerable communities face. I have also seen numerous resources, books and audiovisual material that teachers can use for inspiration. However, I must caution teachers that working towards addressing the topic of racism in the ESL class is not easy. Still, it is a task we all must tackle together. There is no point in conjugating irregular verbs when Black lives are at stake, and students are not getting the language to address the issues and challenge the systems that have created it.

Black Lives Matter

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